A few months after losing her brother to an accidental overdose, Michelle Tunno Buelow found out she was pregnant with her first child. She began sewing burp cloths to get her through the grief, with the goal of launching a charitable fund to help other vulnerable kids. 16 years later, that passion project is still going strong. Her company, Bella Tunno, now makes dozens of fun and functional baby products like bowls, plates, bibs, spoons, and teethers. What sets the brand apart is its purpose-driven mission: for every product sold, Bella Tunno donates a meal to a hungry child. The Matthews, North Carolina-based entrepreneur considers the more-than-6.2 million meals her company has donated to be its biggest success.
Buelow’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
I started Bella Tunno as a passion project in 2005, after losing my brother to an accidental overdose. I was in a deep depression, and found out I was pregnant with my first child, so I started sewing burp cloths to stay busy and keep my mind off of things, with the goal of launching a charitable fund to help other vulnerable kids. From day one, a portion of every sale went to the Matt Tunno Make a Difference Fund, which focuses on drug and alcohol abuse prevention.
How do you define success?
We measure success not by how many products we sell, but by how many meals we donate. That’s how we gauge the performance of our sales reps, and that’s how we measure milestones as a company. The more meals we donate, the more successful we consider our company.
Tell us about your biggest success to date
For me, our biggest success was when we finally aligned our brand’s mission with our target audience and launched our Buy One, Feed One initiative. When we first started out, a portion of the proceeds from every sale went to a charitable fund that focused on drug and alcohol abuse prevention. That mission aligned with something I was personally very passionate about, but there was a huge disconnect between what we stood for and our target audience. People who just brought their new baby home didn’t want to even think about the possibility of that child growing up to become an addict. But in 2014, I came across a couple eye-opening statistics: 20% of children in the U.S. go to bed hungry – and kids who go hungry are more likely to fall into addictive behaviors as adults. That’s when everything clicked, and I realized that by focusing our efforts on ending childhood hunger, we might be able to help some of those children avoid falling into addiction later in life. Just like that, the mission was redirected and Bella Tunno’s Buy One, Feed One initiative was born. For the past 8 years, Bella Tunno has been donating at least one meal to a hungry child. To date, we’ve donated more than 6.2 million meals. We are now known as the purpose-driven baby brand on a mission to end childhood hunger, because we are selling feeding products for babies that help feed children in need.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced as a small business is whether we should seek investment capital to scale. We are 100% privately owned, we have a fun, family-oriented culture, and we are fiercely committed to our core values. Outside capital is tempting due to the potential for rapid growth – and in turn, the potential for more charitable donations. However, in order to stay true to our brand personality, our giving model, and our core values, we have shied away from outside investors. It’s a question and potential regret that I wrestle with often as I watch our competition grow and the market become more saturated.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Find your own measuring stick for success. Success is not just about the money. For our brand, success is measured in meal donations. Early on, I didn’t feel like our company was big enough to deserve a seat at the table. Even as we doubled year over year, our company never seemed to be growing fast enough or hitting the big numbers that I watched other brands hit. But over time, I’ve learned there is always going to be a faster-growing, larger, more profitable company than yours – when you measure your success on sales alone. But when your success is linked to something beyond the numbers, your passion and drive and confidence become explosive. Meal donations drive everything we do at Bella Tunno, because that’s how we measure success. It’s meals donated, not dollars earned. The money has to be there, and the two things are directly related, but measuring success in meals is so much more meaningful and impactful. The most important lesson I’ve learned since starting this company is: When your purpose is shallow, the victories are empty. And when your purpose is deep, the victories are meaningful.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
There are two things that propel me through the dark times: First, I founded this company to honor my late brother and leave a legacy of change in his name. My brother was hilarious and brilliant and gentle. He was an academic and was 3 months shy of completing his doctorate when he died. He was so many amazing things, and to this day, no one has ever made me think deeper or laugh harder. But he was also a drug addict. I started Bella Tunno in his name, while simultaneously launching the Matt Tunno Make a Difference Fund, to honor all the good about him and help people overcome the things that hold them back. When people die from things like drugs, suicide or alcoholism a dark cloud hangs over every mention of their name. But that isn’t what defines them – or at least it shouldn’t be. Addiction was my brother’s demon, but it wasn’t who he was. I wanted to leave a legacy for all the light and goodness he brought to the world while helping others overcome their hardships. When the days get hard, I remember why I started this company and the fire reignites. The second point of inspiration through the big challenges is our mission. Bella Tunno exists to eliminate childhood hunger. We want to meet one of the three basic needs for kids to stay alive. The fact that 1 out of 6 children in the USA faces food insecurity puts everything in perspective, and that’s a huge motivator to push through the dark times.
Who is your most important role model?
I look up to the women who both paved the way and made room at the table for other women to follow in their footsteps and learn from their success. It can be a challenge to find savvy, successful women entrepreneurs who are willing to slow down long enough to help others. My role models are those in my EY Winning Women and Vital Voices cohorts, who share both their secrets to success and what they learned from their biggest failures. They offer advice, they make introductions, and they cheer each other on every step of the way. These are the women I want to surround myself with, and that is the kind of person I want to be for other women entrepreneurs.